I teach in a Title I school in New Haven, Connecticut, where many of my own students begin with every disadvantage one could imagine in a first world country; some even suffer from a few disadvantages that most Americans can’t (or don’t want to) imagine at all. These kids are frighteningly familiar with deprivation and abuse in all its various forms. And while they may not have easy access to healthy foods, the best schools, safe and stable home environments, or an abundance of positive role models, they do all have cell phones and a web of social networks that could provide a ready escape from their difficult lives . . . if only those virtual societies did not so often so closely resemble the omnipresent dysfunction of the real worlds they inhabit.
Almost none of them have been promised much more than a hard life of unmitigated mediocrity . . . and many have been almost guaranteed even less than that. These are not the suburban scions who simply have to jump through the hoops of education and social networking to be promised a future of comfort and relative certainty. A diploma doesn’t mean much from a school that graduates 96.2% of its students when only about 23.5% of them can meet benchmark on any standardized test of college and career readiness. Nor does post-secondary acceptance offer any radical opportunities for a brighter future when about 50% of any senior class will fail to make it to their sophomore year in college.3 College admission that is granted by virtue of historical injustices, modern quotas, and the triumph of capitalist greed over academic excellence at many colleges and universities does little more for most of our graduates than drain them of the slender economic gifts they were given, deepen their debts, and briefly delay their entry into the cycles of poverty and self-destruction so few of them can escape.
Many modern pundits, most technology corporations, and even a few scientists have suggested that science and emerging technologies will save us. In a recent New York Times article, David Brooks waxes optimist about the ways in which Artificial Intelligence can help us more accurately identify people at risk for serious depression.4 This is great news, but I don’t need AI to point out my students with mental health issues (they are the norm, not the exception where I teach); I need better ways to treat them – one of which, I am almost sure, must be removing them from the toxic environments in which these mental health problems emerge and propagate. This already difficult task becomes much more daunting when you realize that they pay more (and closer attention) to their phones than they do to me or any of their other teachers (the people who are, ideally, offering them the skills and knowledge they will need to ultimately improve their prospects for the future). When you realize that their on-line interactions only serve to mirror and magnify their real world problems, helping them seems almost impossible.
Having grown up in poverty, I can empathize with much of what these kids experience, but when I was a child, school – however unbearable an education may have seemed in the moment – was a seven-hour respite from whatever troubles were overwhelming me at home. We got free food, sympathy and support from our teachers, and easy friendship with other kids from similar circumstances. That I was smart also helped – perhaps some of my struggling peers found school to be another reminder of the difficulties life offered, but for me it was an opportunity to excel and exert some control over my life. It wasn’t until junior high when we moved to Connecticut (and in with an uncle) that I attended a more affluent school and began hating it because I was teased about my hand-me-down clothes.
Thanks to the advent of cell phones and social media, school is no longer an escape from a student’s life outside it. My students regularly receive text messages from parents, family, and friends while they are in class. Some are even so brazen as to take calls or attempt to Facetime during instruction. This has resulted in behavior I almost never witnessed when I was growing up – students who burst into tears or who are suddenly overcome with rage at ostensibly nothing. The “nothing” is some bit of information they received on their phones that has now made it impossible for them to be anything but a disruption to the class. This can be the continuation of an argument they were having with family and friends or some new offense to their person in the form of a social media post. The result is, at best, that they will walk out of class (sometimes they will pause for a pass to guidance or the nurse, but often their emotions do not allow for even a conversation with someone who may deny them what they want); at worst, they will engage other students in their emotional overload and bring to a halt any possibility of work being done. In my youth, such news would not have reached us until after school and therefore would have disturbed no one’s education.
Another problem is the heightened level of insecurity arising from the ubiquity of phones and social media. No longer can students only be teased at the bus stop or during lunch; now the harassment can be non-stop. Even if they aren’t immediately aware of any assaults to their appearance, dignity, or reputation, the possibility is always looming in their pocket (or even on the desk next to them as many of my students need incessant reminders to put their phones away). There is no break from judgment and possibly persecution.
There is also no break from the constant need to present yourself positively on social media. In my day, girls would never want their picture taken; now they come late to class because they spent twenty minutes in the bathroom trying to take the perfect selfie. I would estimate that far more time and effort is put into creating their social media personas than is put into their academic résumés; that far more time is spent reading and thinking about text messages and posts than is spent reading and interpreting literary texts; that far more time is spent in surreptitious communion with their phones than is spent in active collaboration with the class. Certainly, they grow immediately annoyed (even angry and aggressive) when you require them to put away their phones (many simply refuse to do so as there are no real consequences for insubordination at our school – another thing that has changed since I was a child), and very few express any contrition when the impact of their behavior on their grades becomes apparent (and then only in the hopes they will be favored with extra credit or, even better, forgiveness for missing work).
It is for the above reasons I wanted to create a curriculum unit that has my students examine closely the effects cell phones and social media are having on their lives and their already slim chances for success. If some of them do not soon recognize the role their phones are playing in their downfall, I fear it will be too late . . . perhaps for a few it already is. But in those same potentially poisonous devices there may exist a salve for or salvation from some of what ails them, and I believe with knowledge comes hope and opportunity. Their lives have already taken away too much of that; my sincerest wish is that the work they do for this unit will give some of it back.